Friday, December 24, 2010

Thoughts on the Recording Art

I made my first recordings on a full-track tape deck at KXLO studios. Since AM radio is mono, and this was the early 60's, they had no need for stereo recorders. At that time, most mono tape recorders were what is called "half track." That means the recording was done on half of the tape, call it the "top half." Then, when you got to the end of the tape, you would flip the tape over and record on the other half. This had the positive affect of doubling the length of time the whole reel of tape could record, as well as finishing up with the tape nicely rewound on the original reel.

The more professional mono recorders at KXLO were full track. They recorded on the entire width of the magnetic tape. That means that, if you flipped the tape over, and then played it back, the audio would come out in reverse. Also the machine had "infinite" speed control, so you could slow things down and speed them up. We did some fun recording with that machine.

While in Navy 'A' School I bought my first tape recorder, a Sony reel-to-reel, and started recording music off the radio and from records. Later I recorded a lot of jam sessions and even made some serious "studio" recordings. I have those to this day. But, since they were just "ambient" or "live" recordings, I can't really do any post production. I would love to turn up the vocals or the bass guitar and turn down the lead guitar, but what you got is what you get.

Later I started recording my friend Casey Anderson in the mid seventies. I upgraded to a nice Teac stereo reel-to-reel. Like the Sony, it was a quarter track machine with two heads. Record stereo, flip the tape, and record stereo on the rewind. Then I added a Teac four track reel-to-reel. It had a typical quarter track design but with four heads and recorded four tracks on the tape in one direction. Like the old mono recorder at KXLO, you could only record in one direction, but I was able to record Casey's small combo with dedicated tracks for each instrument and voice. Later, recording 4 and 5 piece groups and even large blue grass bands, I would just partially mix down to four tracks and then do final production to stereo in post.

I always wanted more tracks, 8 or 16 or even more to give me more control. Then the whole recording process would be to simply capture each instrument and voice as best you can, and leave the actual mixing to post production. I finally achieved that goal when I purchased a Fostex digital hard disk recorder which allowed 16 tracks simultaneous recording. My first job with that new equipment was to record a band's reunion. They had electronic drums, so it was very simple to capture all the instruments and voices, even though they did quartet singing and had violin and keyboards in addition to two guitars and bass. I now have a home studio that is also 16 tracks and could be 32 or even 64 if I just had the audio card inputs on my computer. It is really more an issue that my computer has run out of slots to add sound cards than limits of the audio recording software.

That is the back ground to my reading this in Keith Richard's autobiography:

The thing about eight-track was it was punch in and go. And it was a perfect format for the Stones. You walk into that studio and you know where the drums are going to be and what they sound like. Soon after that, there were sixteen and then twenty-four tracks, and everyone was scrambling around these huge desks. It made it much more difficult to make records. The canvas becomes enormous, and it becomes much harder to focus. Eight-track is my preferable means of recording a four-, five-, six-piece band.

Add that to the fact that the Beatles and the Beach Boys all through the 60's and early 70's focused on simple mono recordings and left the stereo mixes to the engineers (and who leaves the music production to the engineers???). Now think what we have in the studio. We have electronic reverb (the Stones recorded in a basement to get the echo), parametric equalization and limiting/expansion/compression and even automatic pitch correction. (Heard Cher on her last disk?) When will it end? I have syncro envelope control, hiss and hum removal, and I can even clean up tapes that are almost beyond listening. All through the tricky application of fourier transforms and digital data storage.

Yet people are returning to vinyl (and tube amplifiers).

So is the pallet now just too complicated? Is digital music just too "cold?" Are transistors not "warm" enough? Have we lost control due to the high tech stuff? What would Muddy Waters think, or even Eric Clapton?

Thoughts to ponder. Is Santa brining my musician friends another digital toy? Or is there just a Hohner harmonica in your stocking? Well, and maybe a nice "green bullet" microphone to record that blues harp?!?

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